Eradicating Fear in School


It is interesting to read articles such as The Secret Teacher: Are you teaching in a climate of fear?  Regardless of whether I believe it to be a fact or not, it is an opinion shared by many teachers and it is a growing malaise.  The key to most of our school’s problems is strong leadership.  This is true both at a political level as well as at school level.  Changing things at a political level is a slow process and beyond the reach of most of us mere mortals but making a difference in the classroom and school is something we school leaders can do.  Don’t let others deceive you of your ability to make a difference.  So how do we make a difference?

I think it is simple.  As school leaders we have one role to fulfill.  To secure the highest standard of teaching.  If we achieve this everything else follows.

I also believe fundamentally, in the teachings of Edward Deming who was largely responsible for changing the culture of many large Japanese businesses transforming them from the widely regarded sellers of ‘Jap Crap’ to merchants of high quality affordable products.  If you have never heard of him click here.

Edward Deming looked at businesses as systems.  Before all of you shout me down with cries of, ‘children are not products’ let us agree on one thing.  Schools are a system.  Therefore Deming’s teachings can be applied to schools too and it is here.

Deming talked about 12 key principles that leaders should observe in running a system, be it a school or business.   They were:

  1. Create constancy of purpose toward improvement of product and service.
  2. Adopt the new philosophy.
  3. Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for massive inspection by building quality into the product in the first place.
  4. End the practice of awarding business on the basis of a price tag.
  5. Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service, to improve quality and productivity, and thus constantly decrease costs.
  6. Institute training on the job.
  7. Institute leadership
  8. Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.
  9. Break down barriers between departments.
  10. Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity
  11. Remove barriers that rob workers of their right to pride of workmanship.
  12. Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement.
  13. Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation.

He also talked about seven deadly diseases:

  1. Lack of constancy of purpose
  2. Emphasis on short-term profits
  3. Evaluation by performance, merit rating, or annual review of performance
  4. Mobility of management
  5. Running a company on visible figures alone
  6. Excessive medical costs
  7. Excessive costs of warranty, fueled by lawyers who work for contingency fees

It relation to the original article on fear in schools, my ramblings which follow ponder just this principle.  Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.

In the article, reference is made to numerous staff crying in the car parks, suffering from ill health, crying following feedback and so on.  Whilst it is easy to point the finger of blame at OFSTED, politicians and others there is a great deal school leaders can do to counter this disease of negativity which is creeping into our schools, but it means being brave enough to stand up to the tidal wave of bull which political game playing creates.

Considering just point 8, fear can be introduced into schools in a number of ways and it can have different effects. Here are a few scenarios and effects you might like to consider:

  • Teachers who fear data monitoring systems which are punitive in their nature rather than reflective and supportive will play the system to avoid repercussions.  Data reporting will be untruthful so measurements by school leaders will be pointless and strategic responses will be inert since they will be based on untrue, biased data.
  • Teachers who live in fear will pass challenging teaching groups back and forth like hot potatoes to minimize damage to one’s personal reputation.  “If they are not in my class they are not my responsibility”.   Senior staff who are fearful will be more likely to pass on those groups to members of their faculty, especially if relationships with teachers in their faculty are already poor.  This results in staff feeling resentful of their line manager leading to blamestorming (like brainstorming but completely negative and pointless) at the end of each evaluation period.
  • Teachers who work in fear will play it safe in lesson time. Why risk being out there or daring.  We all know it is when we take the risks with groups that pupils begin to appreciate what we have to offer and learning is unleashed and so fear can stymie this.
  • Controlling people through systems of fear stops people questioning their own practice.  They become beholden to the system which dictates what they should do and when.  When staff are fearful of seeking assistance this stalls team work and stops the sharing of good practice.  The very people who know what needs fixing are rendered inert.
  • Performance appraisals based on outputs alone shift the foci of staff away from the processes by which the desired outcomes are achieved.  Where appraisal systems focus on one of two outcomes, namely securing improvements or allowing leaders to move more quickly to measures which lead to dismissal the opposing purposes are in conflict and staff feel insecure.  A teacher identifying a weakness in their practice in order to identify a training need is less likely to happen when bringing such a weakness to the attention of their line manager might also speed up the process by which they may be dismissed.
  • School systems have a habit of grading everything (1, 2, 3 and 4).   In many examples of good practice in marking school children’s work teachers are advised not to give grades or levels and instead identify good practice and things that can be improved.  The rationale for this is that grading pupils stops pupils from evaluating their work.  They look at the grade.  A good grade doesn’t actually motivate them to look for ways of making it even better and a bad grade has the effect of demotivating them.
  • Excessive punitive measures in schools often alienate staff.  Examples might include written warnings over lateness, or a failure to meet a deadline.  So as an example, a teacher who is normally a good timekeeper might turn up late twice in one week.  If the school has a visitor entry system this might then lead to them receiving a written notice to ‘buck their ideas up’.  In the same school it is unlikely that a system for monitoring staff who stay late repeatedly is in place to check their welfare.  Thus a teacher will become alienated by a system that might have been put in place with good intentions to tackle staff who perhaps do need a kick up the proverbial.

I am sure you will identify many more examples of how fear is introduced into the daily life of teachers.  I will conclude my ramblings with some food for thought.  Perhaps senior staff might tackle them week by week in leadership meetings and review their own practice.

  1. Review your appraisal policy.  If it links to capability procedures does it need to?  Isn’t it possible to write a policy which focuses entirely on process rather than outcome?  After all. All teachers would like to see 100% of students in their class achieve the highest grades.  Wanting is not the same as achieving.  The mechanism by which the success is secured is in the process not the outcome so surely objectives should be process focused. 
  2. Instead of senior leaders doing all the lesson observations why not use teachers to do it.  When you ask teachers to work together to evaluate practice and make changes it is less intimidating that the SLT member coming in with the clipboard and OFSTED framework.  Could you develop a team or buddy system to drive staff development?
  3. CPD.  Is it always the outstanding ASTs that deliver INSET?  Outstanding teachers that are as far removed from the new inexperienced staff as can be possible?    Is it once a term on an INSET day when staff are crammed full of ideas and then given no time to implement them? Why not develop a training programme that allows staff to meet weekly for a short period of time and reflect on good practice.  Our school does this now every Monday after school and I look forward to Mondays now.   You can also utilise all teachers in feeding back and sharing good practice; keeping it real for us mortal teachers that are miles off an outstanding grade.
  4.  Does your data monitoring actually achieve anything?  Could you improve your monitoring by reflecting not just on what teachers are going to do to address underachievement but also middle leaders and senior staff so there is a team approach to intervention?
  5. Do you grade everything 1, 2, 3 & 4?  Why.  Does it matter to teachers?  If SLT need figures for OFSTED reporting collect them by all means.  But do you need to have a currency in grades for teachers.  Might you be better of developing a system which identifies good practice and areas that need improving without resorting to grades? Perhaps by failing to label people staff might actually focus on the areas that need to improve?
  6. Do SLT consider the well-being of staff each half term?  Would it be sensible to set up a well-being committee and give them remit to change the most stressful things in school?  Do you know what the biggest causes of stress in your school are?  You could set up an annual survey to ask staff how they feel about various things and compare it year on year.  I use the survey monkey website which is a fantastic way of setting up surveys and analysing data with a few clicks of a button.  You might also read some of the suggestions made by John Tomsett in his blog here which mirror many of my thoughts on the subject.

I don’t hold the monopoly on wisdom and this article isn’t about telling you the right way to do things.  I hope thought that it makes you think and leads to you improving the lives of the teachers in your school.  Happy staff work harder, achieve better results and stay in post longer.  That much I do know.



4 responses to “Eradicating Fear in School

    • You are right. The general public don’t know what the job entails. My friends still think I work 9 till 3 and have half my life on holiday so it is understandable that many members of the public see us as a bunch of whining idiots. More than ever now senior leaders have to stand up and create a barrier between the very damaging effects of political tinkering and maintaining a positive climate in school. As I ponder moving into headship I am constantly thinking about how I can remove the element of mass inspection and grading everything we value and turn it into a process driven rather than outcome driven culture.

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